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Image of Guru Har Rai below: from painting by Jarnail Singh, Vancouver, Canada.

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It's International Sikh Environment Day





I witnessed something remarkable this Saturday evening (10 March, 2012) in Melbourne, Australia at the Whittlesea Council Assembly Hall.

Politicians from our federal, state and local assemblies were present and some prominent Sikh luminaries, Sikh sangat and non-Sikhs. It was an initiative of the local council, under the auspices of one Harkieret Singh, ably supported by staff and councillors.

I think even they did not know the enormity of the cause and initiative they were supporting. It dawned on me as I sat and listened and watched.

Firstly, let me remind all that 14 March is a triple whammy (forgive my Aussie slang) for us. It is not only the Sikh Environment Day but also the Sikh New Year Day as well as the Gurpurab of our affectionately named 'Eco-Guru', the Seventh Master, Guru Har Rai.

A day, which otherwise used to pass off as 'just another' Gurpurab but, within the year, has suddenly become one of the most significant days in the international Sikh calendar.

At the program, I asked for a show of hands as to how many Sikhs knew that it was our New Year Day. A couple of hands went up. This, to the amusement of everyone else present.

Prominent members of our legislature, including outgoing Speaker of the Federal Lower House, Mr. H. Jenkins, gave some insightful speeches about Sikhs in Australia. All had done their homewwork and were with us to have a good time.

Prominent Sikh luminary S. Gurbaksh Singh talked about the Nanakshahi calender. A personal message was read out from Sikh-Canadian S. Pal Singh Purewal, the architect of the Nanakshahi calendar.

As I sat there, the full significance of this day slowly dawned upon me. I had the opportunity of saying a few words too ...

I do not think we have actually fully woken up to this phenomenon of what 14 March is going to mean to us into the future.

This celebration is about:

1  Our International Identity as a community (quom). Dare I say, 'nation without borders'?

2  Sikhs as an international, responsible community becoming super conscious of the environment and become eco-friendly collectively, as families and as individuals. 

3  Sikhs playing an active and responsible role in promoting multiculturalism which appears to under attack in some parts of the world. 

4  Attaining a higher and positive profile worldwide by a community which is hard-working, civic-minded and a credit to the nation in which they stay in - whether it be U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Malaysia,  India or any other country. 

Firstly, credit where credit is due. I believe the Washington Sikhs under the capable leadership of S. Rajwant Singh are to be credited for launching this idea of an International Sikh Environment Day and for vigorously promoting it. 

Sikhs have never widely celebrated the Sikh New Year on March 14  before - it has to date been subsumed into Vaisakhi in April! 

Some do celebrate the Gurpurab of Guru Har Rai. Now, it has been given an added dimension as the Sikh Environment Day. 

To me, this is a significant step in our effort to establish our status as the Sikh quom worldwide. Here we have a distinct identity, a worldwide presence, our own language, our own script, a very colourful five-century long history, including sagas of tremendous valour worldwide over the last two centuries, and dare I say, a 'culture' which we call our own. 

We do have our challenges, though.

Firstly we have the problem of 'ethnicity'. Are we an ethnic minority when it comes to minority monitoring by various governments worldwide? Though a British House of Lords case, Mandala v. Lee in 1983, established that Sikhs should be considered an ethnic minority for census purposes, we still have a problem over that. Rather than accepting that Sikhism is a complete and distinct way of life, we still like to separate religion from culture and once again we are lost in the quagmire of being Indians or South Asians, etc. for census purposes.

From within, there are Sikhs who refuse to accept that we are not just a religious community but also an ethnic community, based on a religion. For census purposes we are neither Indians, not even Punjabis but 'Sikhs'.

Increasingly in the worldwide diaspora, many of us are born outside the subcontinent and have little in common with others who now live there, except Sikh-Indians. There is no reason we need to be bundled for census purposes with people who share neither ethnicity nor language nor culture nor values with us (Indians, for example) or with those who merely speak our language (Pakistanis, for example) ... and so on.

There is no reason for us to denigrate ourselves in the diaspora by labelling ourselves 'Indian". We are Sikh are are proud to be so. 

As a collective body we need to convince governments that we must be counted as Sikhs. We will then get a better idea as to how many Sikhs there are in each corner of the world. Are we now 30 million worldwide? Are we more?

Can this army of 30 million then also turn into eco-warriors?

This step of making our new year day the Sikh Environment Day is a step in the right direction. Suddenly gurdwaras and smaller Sikh communities worldwide have become conscious of environment issues, becoming eco-friendly, clean air campaigners, helping to clean up the environment, making efforts towards minimising the use of energy and most importantly, once a year, reviewing what we have already achieved in this direction.

The Red Cross representative present at this celebration at Whittlesea paid a glowing tribute of how enthusiastic the Sikhs have been in donating blood, for example - the best response from any ethnic community.

It is quite amazing that the least known of our Gurus has now become the rallying point for a world-wide movement to inspire us to engahe with our environment. He is the gentle guru who advocated care for animals, care for the environment, encouraged the growing of trees, herbs and plants, herbal medicines for the sick (he is reputed to have cured the son of the Moghul emperor with his herbal medicines) and gentleness towards each other.

For a modest start, Khalsa ji, may I request all gurdwaras that still dishing out paper napkins when degh is served and also still using paper plates for langar - please do something about it. It is embarrassing to talk of the environment when we still have such wasteful exercises in our gurdwaras! 

Let us also take the modest step of also declaring Sikh Environment Day as Open House and invite our non-Sikh friends to celebrate this wonderful day with us.  

We are doing so at our Blackburn Gurdwara in Melbourne, Australia this week when all of our 'neighbours' from far and wide have been invited. We have members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Muslim faiths to joing us to talk of efforts within our respective communities re the environment.  

Let us all celebrate Sikh Environment Day and become active eco-warriors and promoters of peace and harmony in the countries we live in.  

We are nation-builders: this is our mandate.


March 13, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), March 13, 2012, 1:13 PM.

We can now add the title 'eco' to the Saint-Warrior description of a true Sikh!

2: Harpreet Singh (Delhi, India), March 13, 2012, 2:04 PM.

Good article. It is the responsibility of us all that this movement does progresses. Have all Sikhs read the writings on ecology by Bhagat Puran Singh of Pingalwara fame, or on the environment by Bhai Vir Singh? Are we able to tell the world about these great Sikhs? We need more articles about Sikhi and the environment.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 13, 2012, 7:15 PM.

Dya Singh ji: what a lovely, insightful and timely article indeed. More so, you have mentioned the 7th Master, Guru Har Rai. Unlike other Gurus, relatively little is written or known about him. Did you know of the tradition that when the Guru ka Langar was ready, it was announced with the beat of the nagaara (drum). It was during Guru Har Rai's time that Sikhs were routinely sent out into the community to check that no one has slept hungry. The maryada (practice) of standing up with folded handed for ardaas, was also started by him. He was a great environmentalist too. To describe Guru Har Rai in a few key words, I would suggest "nirbhau" and "nirvair" - fearless and without enmity. In his darbar, there were no beggars; those in need did not even need to ask. This indeed is the title of the book on his life by Principal Satbir Singh.

4: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A..), March 14, 2012, 2:14 PM.

I have always struggled with the fact that why so little is known about the Seventh Guru. Therefore, I would be grateful if someone can help me get a copy of the book on his life by Principal Satbir Singh that Sardar Sangat Singh ji has mentioned. What is the title of book, ISBN etc.? Where can it be purchased? Also, can someone enlighten me on why now we are referring to March 14 as Sikh New Year's day. What else is significant on this day, other than Guru Har Rai's birthday? I have grown up by knowing Vaisakhi as our New Year's day. Why now March 14 versus April 14? Please note, I am neither arguing, nor disputing, rather simply trying to gain knowledge.

5: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), March 14, 2012, 7:21 PM.

Chintan Singh ji, #4: Principal Satbir Singh Ji's book is "Nirbhau Nirvair - Life Of Sri Guru Har Rai Ji", pp 148, Rs 85.00. If you Google it you may find it locally. Principal Satbir Singh's books are extremely well researched; he was one of the finest biographers. I had the privilege of knowing him personally and spent considerable time with him whenever he visited Malaysia. He was also an exceptional speaker and listening to him was like enjoying a fireside chat. It is worth having his full works in your library. [EDITOR: You can also try "Sacha Sauda" in Brampton, Canada, or "Singh Brothers" in Amritsar, Punjab.]

6: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, U.S.A..), March 14, 2012, 10:27 PM.

Chintan Singh ji (#4): I have a book, "Purakh Bhagwant" (biography of Guru Gobind Singh) by Satbir Singh. The address of the publishers (parkaashak) is: New Book Company, Mai Heeran Gate, Jullundhar 144008, Punjab. The book, Nirbhau-Nirvair, is one of the books listed under Satbir singh's authorship.

7: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, U.S.A.), March 15, 2012, 3:01 PM.

Thank you, S. Sangat Singh ji and S. Ajit Singh ji. I did an online search and found the book on the Jawahar Singh Kirpal Singh Publishers website. I ordered it. Can't wait to get it.

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